The Case of the Disappearing Gaddafis

The late Libyan dictator’s wife and three children were in Algeria. Or at least everyone thought so — until now

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Hannibal Gaddafi
Abdel Magid al-Fergany / AP

Hannibal Gaddafi, son of deceased former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, watches an elite military unit exercise in Zliten, Libya, in this undated photo made available on Sept. 25, 2011

The aftermath of the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi continues to generate drama. The current mystery is the disappearance of four family members from Libya’s neighbor Algeria. In a fresh twist to the outsize dynastic saga, Gaddafi’s second wife Safia, his daughter Aisha and his sons Mohammed and Hannibal have vanished without a trace from their comfortable exile in an upscale seaside community outside Algiers. Safia and Hannibal are both subject to international arrest warrants issued by Interpol at the request of Libya’s new government. So far, there is no clue to where the four have gone. “I cannot comment on their whereabouts,” Nick Kaufmann, a Gaddafi family attorney, told TIME on Monday. “There is no information I can pass on to you.”

For weeks, reports in Arab-language media speculated that Safia and three of her offspring appeared to have quietly slipped out of Algeria. When TIME traveled to Algeria last month, officials would say only that interviews with the Gaddafis were out of the question, but refused to say exactly where they were living. The first confirmation that they had in fact left the country came on Saturday, when Algeria’s ambassador to Libya, Abdel-Hamid Bouzaher, was quoted by the Libyan news agency saying that the four Gaddafis had left Algeria “a long time ago.” He did not say when they had left, how or where they were headed.

When rebels stormed into Tripoli in August 2011, the Gaddafis scattered in different directions as fighters closed in on their fortress-like compound in the capital. Aisha’s husband and two children were killed while escaping toward Algeria; Aisha gave birth to a baby one day after they made it safely across Libya’s western border. Another Gaddafi’s son, Saadi — whom Libyan officials claim played a crucial role in organizing the brutal crackdown on protesters — fled across Libya’s southern border to Niger. Only Saif al-Islam, once Gaddafi’s most powerful son and presumed successor, remained inside Libya. Bearded and dressed in Bedouin clothing, he was finally cornered on the run in the southern desert in November 2011, a month after Gaddafi was killed by rebels in his hometown in Sirt.

Since then, Saif is the only family member to have been seen in public. A video appeared in January of him in a courthouse in Zintan, looking fatigued, after 15 months in custody by the local militia. Wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague for ordering Gaddafi’s forces to open fire on unarmed protesters, Saif faces possible execution in Libya. “Libyan authorities say they are capable of judging him themselves,” ICC spokesman Fadhi el-Abdullah said by phone from the Hague. “The ICC judges will issue their decision in due course.”

(MORE: Cousin of Libya’s Gaddafi Arrested in Egypt)

Though two have arrest warrants, the Gaddafis who left Algeria have not been indicted by the ICC; the Interpol notices would obligate any border-control official to arrest them as soon as they produced their passports, but there is no international obligation to send them to the Hague.

Still, it remains unclear whether the group left Algeria with the government’s blessing. When they first fled 19 months ago, Algerian officials were sympathetic to their plight. But the risks to the country of its decision to shelter the Gaddafis have risen in the months since. Algeria has grown increasingly uneasy about the ripple effects of the Western-led Libyan war. “They are really annoyed about Libya,” Vicki Huddleston, former U.S. ambassador to Mali and, until 2011, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, said in a recent interview with TIME. “They warned that it would upset the whole region if Gaddafi fell, and realized it would unleash the weapons [from his arsenal].”

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika had bitterly opposed NATO’s bombing campaign against Gaddafi’s forces and warned that Islamic terrorism could flourish if Gaddafi’s rule collapsed — with potentially dire consequences for Algeria itself. Those consequences have become clear in the past months along Algeria’s border with Mali, where French and African forces are pitted in fierce battle against jihadists — who had amassed a military-grade arsenal from Gaddafi’s old weapons stocks, after the Libyan dictatorship collapsed. In January, insurgents launched a devastating armed raid in Algeria from Libya, seizing Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant, in the worst attack in the oil industry’s history. At least 38 foreign workers were killed.

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